Library of Congress
Cheyenne captives following the attack on Washita by Custer’s forces. Most of the Cheyenne captives are visible in this photograph, taken at Fort Dodge en route to the stockade at Fort Hays, Kansas; to the left stands U.S. Army chief of scouts John O. Austin.

Native History: Custer Attacks Peaceful Cheyenne in Oklahoma

Alysa Landry

This Date in Native History: On November 27, 1868, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an early morning attack on a band of peaceful Cheyenne living in western Oklahoma.

The surprise attack, known as the Battle of the Washita River, is hailed as one of the first substantial American victories in the wars against the Southern Plains Indians.

“Prior to this, the Southern Plains Indians—the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the Kiowa and Comanche—they were running circles around the Army,” said Joel Shockley, a park guide at Washita Battlefield National Historic Site. “At the time, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were known as the fiercest Indians in the area.”

Custer, touted as a Civil War hero, had been suspended for one year after being convicted of desertion and mistreatment of soldiers. Ten months into this punishment, he was reinstated to lead a campaign against Cheyenne Indians who had raided settlements in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Chief Black Kettle (Wikimedia Commons)Custer and 150 men of the 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked at dawn on November 27, after marching all night, said Shockley, who is Choctaw and Cherokee. Their target was a camp of about 300 Cheyenne living with Chief Black Kettle, who almost exactly four years earlier had survived the dawn massacre at Sand Creek, in Colorado.

In his field report, Custer stated that three of his four columns charged as one, and that “there was never a more complete surprise. My men charged the village and reached the lodges before the Indians were aware of our presence.”

Custer rode a black stallion that morning, historian Mary Jane Warde wrote in her 2003 book, Washita. After shooting one Cheyenne man, Custer took a position on a knoll to watch the battle. In his field report, he described the scene.

“The lodges and all their contents were in our possession within 10 minutes after the charge was ordered,” he wrote. “But the real fighting, such as has rarely been equaled in Indian warfare, began when attempting to clear out or kill the warriors posted in ravines and underbrush; charge after charge was made, and most gallantly too, but the Indians had resolved to sell their lives as dearly as possible.”

Within a few hours of the attack, Custer’s men had destroyed the village and killed as many as 103 Cheyenne, including Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman. Custer then ordered his men to destroy “everything of value to the Indians,” Warde wrote. That included slaughtering more than 800 horses and mules.

The Seventh U.S. Cavalry charging into Black Kettle's village at daylight, November 27, 1868. (Library of Congress)

Custer calculated the number of human deaths by asking each of his men how many people he killed, Shockley said. By the time Custer returned to Fort Hayes, the count had risen to 140.

“Custer was trying to redeem himself with the Army,” Shockley said. “It is believed that many of these officers counted the same people two or three times.”

Cheyenne estimates put the death toll much lower, Shockley said. The tribe reported 50 to 60 people were killed, including 12 women and six children.

Of the 53 people taken captive, most were women and children. Custer likely used the hostages as “human shields,” a strategy he used often during the Indian wars and wrote about in his 1874 book, My Life on the Plains: Or, Personal Experiences with Indians.

Although the incident is called a battle, it was more of a massacre, Shockley said. Custer’s orders were to go to the Washita River and follow it until he found the hostile Indians.

Before he reached the hostile group, however, he discovered Black Kettle and his peaceful village. Black Kettle was leading his people to reservation land and out of harm’s way, Shockley said. “The irony is that Custer basically stumbled on him.”

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Barbara B. Putty's picture
Barbara B. Putty
Submitted by Barbara B. Putty on
I think that he was a sorry son of a bitch and all the rest of the white men that killed all the Indians and tok their land and stuck them on reservations with land that would not even grow them somethin to eat.White men have always tried to make Indaians and Blacks second class citizens. They think that they are superiour to all people. This has been going on since the pilgrams landed on Plymouth Rock. When the so called founding Fathers wrote the consititution that all men we creatd equal the were referring to WHITE MEN!! Oh what the white men have done in the name of religion and the good of the country. I get so angry at how people have been treated. Oh by the way I am white and very ashamed of what my people have done. I am so very sorry.

pete espinoza's picture
pete espinoza
Submitted by pete espinoza on
only in America can a man can become a hero and a murder and put on history books .if you call that a hero manson should be leader of America

Cynthia McCollum's picture
Cynthia McCollum
Submitted by Cynthia McCollum on
I have no way to ever apologize for my ancestors. But I wish I could.

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
A disgrace & coward full of arrogance, lies & evil of heart. he got what he deserved at the Little Big Horn!

Sandra LaCroix's picture
Sandra LaCroix
Submitted by Sandra LaCroix on
I was never taught this in History. How dare they teach us all lies. I have such a respect for the Native Americans, the true Americans.

Kit Jaracy's picture
Kit Jaracy
Submitted by Kit Jaracy on
Instead of creating the fake history that has been fed to us and continues to be fed, it is time to tell the stories the way that they were. Truthfully. The true Americans deserve 1,000 times more than any damned special interest groups. Whites, blacks, illegals etc.

Submitted by MICHELLE LEWIS on

Victor Mature's picture
Victor Mature
Submitted by Victor Mature on
If memory serves me right, Black Kettle was one of the chiefs that signed treaties with the U.S. Federal Government, giving their land and hunting grounds away and without receiving the go ahead from other chiefs in their tribe. Red Cloud was another of these. In a way, Black Kettle got what he deserved by cheating his own people

yoteech's picture
Submitted by yoteech on
Sad commentary on human beings...blood thirst of so many army leaders and not the only massacre to have occured at the hands of the US Army. SAD.

Rich Leonhardt's picture
Rich Leonhardt
Submitted by Rich Leonhardt on
While you're at it, check out the historical "legacy" of Andrew Jackson. Burn in hell Andy!

David Quick's picture
David Quick
Submitted by David Quick on
if I retaliate right now they would give me a life sentence ive shattered two white mens noses where they had to go to the hospital another incident I tok on two duded from Portland made one guy get 4 stitches in his mouth blacked his friends eye now im awaiting trial for hitting this chimo whiem he was in his car im the leader right now we can even handle it in prison or in county jail they still wont learn how mny time do I have to put someone in the hospital

RosieD's picture
Submitted by RosieD on
I am wondering if the numbers of Custer's troops is correct in this article. This article said Custer led 150 troops... however several websites I have looked at (history and military sites) show that Custer had somewhere between 500-700 troops/soldiers. The estimates of Black Kettle's camp were about 250 Cheyenne which was made up of warriors, women, children, infants, & the elderly. (There were only 51 lodges in the Cheyenne camp). I am not sure of the normal breakdown within each lodge but if there were 2 warriors per lodge that would be 100 warriors. So Custer rolled in there was 5 to 7 times the amount of fighting men than were available in the camp. Rolled in there while people were asleep and tried to kill anyone and everything they saw all while 'Gary Owen' was being played by his band. Simply Butchery.

Mike Renz
Mike Renz
Submitted by Mike Renz on
History is often a lie that is so often repeated, its taken for the truth. The more I read about Custer the more I loath him. His slaughter of women and children at Black Kettles camp on the Washita in Oklahoma was horrific. Moreover, he abandoned Major Joel Elliot and his detachment during the "battle" and they were all killed by Kiowa, Arapaho and additional Cheyenne camped east of Black Kettle. Custer's actions were beyond disgraceful. The Washita was no battle field. It was a groups of families trying to save their wives and children from a pre-dawn, un-provoked attack... Black Kettle was a Peace Chief who felt the only way to survive was to comply. It was outrageous to attack him, especially after Sand Creek. As an American, I was disgusted to see how Washita is presented as some great battle - it was a damn war crime. Natives still come and leave tributes out of respect for those who were murdered there. Additionally, Custer dragged off a 17 year old girl as a war trophy and used her for his entertainment after her father died trying to save his family. I say this as a conservative who comes from a family with a long military tradition, dating to before the Civil War. Washita is a very sad place...its no battlefield, it is a crime scene. Custer's grave should be a latrine.

Russell K. Brooks
Russell K. Brooks
Submitted by Russell K. Brooks on
It's important to remember Custer made a promise previously to the Cheyenne people in a lodge that held one of the Cheyenne covenants, a promise in the presence of that covenant with the pipe to never fight Cheyennes again. Stone Forehead, the covenant's keeper, warned him if he ever broke that promise "this is where you will end up" (pointing at the ground). That is why when Custer met his demise at the Little Bighorn, the old Cheyennes knew he was directed to his death for breaking his promise.